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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Tales From a Revolution’

- - Friday, December 7, 2012

By James D. Rice
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 280 pages

Bacon's Rebellion (1676-1677) is one of my favorite footnotes to early American history because the main characters in the drama are so thoroughly reprehensible.

The standard-issue history most of us received in school has the early days of the Virginia and Maryland colonies populated by idle, privileged adventurers who either died or went home, and hardy, industrious yeomen farmers who labored in Arcadian innocence until they were corrupted by the twin evils of easy tobacco profits and the exploitation of African slaves.

To the extent Bacon's Rebellion is touched on at all, Nathaniel Bacon and his followers are portrayed as early patriots who challenged corrupt colonial nabobs who dominated the capital in Jamestown and who blocked the farmers' justifiable desire for cheaper land in the western reaches. The coincidence that the revolt comes just 100 years before the real American Revolution is just too neat to resist for those who believe our history is a straight-line progression of virtue.

While there have been other books about Bacon's Rebellion, this is an accessibly written effort by James D. Rice, a historian who specializes in deeply researched accounts of the early days of our founding. One of the strengths of Mr. Rice's approach to our shared beginnings is that he has dredged up the diaries and correspondence of the main players so one hears real voices in real time.

While Mr. Rice's research confirms that the lust for cheap land in the western provinces of Virginia was certainly one factor in this early rebellion, it was not the only one. Two other conflicting but crucial issues were slavery -- the bartering of Indian slave labor by tribes that specialized in the captive trade -- and classical genocide of the "only good Indian is a dead Indian" variety.

Much had changed in the 70 years since the first English arrivals set up a precarious toe-hold on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake. Comfortable fortunes were now being made from the tobacco and other commodities that consumers demanded back in England. Many of those fortunes went to men such as John Washington, William Byrd and George Mason, whose offspring would loom large in our later history.

While the allegiances of these men often shifted with the political tides, the one constant establishment figure was Sir William Berkeley, the colony's royal governor. His mandate was simple enough: Keep the colony stable and at peace (especially with the Indians) and pump profitable trade back to the mother country and the crown sovereign whose servant he was.

His own commercial interests and class prejudices made Berkeley firmly pro-planter and unsympathetic to the new arrivals. Keeping the most recent immigrants penned in on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains made sense. It made it easier to enforce laws and collect taxes. It made the speculative land holdings of the old guard all the more valuable. Equally important, it placated the increasingly resentful Indian tribes that offered a steady (but ultimately insufficient) supply of captives for the slave markets of Jamestown and threatened the steady encroachment of the white settlers on their land.

The native tribes were in considerable peril from other forces. Few could claim long title to the lands they occupied. Thirty years earlier, Berkeley had led the final extermination of the large tribe of about 14,000 led by the chieftain Powhatan. The subsequent death of his daughter Pocahontas, who had married early founder John Rolfe, left a vacuum. Fairly recent arrivals included the Doeg, Piscataway, Susquehannock and Accomack, who themselves were being squeezed by other tribes from the north. Those northern tribes in turn were being pressed southward by the powerful Iroquois Confederation of tribes in New York.

Lacking a unifying figure like Powhatan, the tribes made various adjustments with Berkeley. Some signed formal peace and trade treaties for guaranteed reservations of hunting rights. Others sold slaves snatched from rival tribes and still others fretted on the frontiers where violence against isolated settlements became increasingly threatening as time went on.

Nathanial Bacon makes a poor hero in an already fraught drama. The son of a wealthy English family that grew tired of his extravagant excesses, Bacon was shipped to Virginia around 1674. There was something even then that was unsavory about Bacon's character and reputation, yet he was able to make an advantageous marriage back in England before buying a promising partnership with William Byrd in the Indian trade.

That was not enough for Bacon, who was described as "very ambitious and Arrogant." Bacon was vocally outspoken in his criticism of Berkeley's temporizing diplomacy with the Indians. He argued that all Indians, even those who had peacefully abided by their treaties, should be expelled from the colony, or equally desirable, simply killed where they stood.

This was the spark needed to ignite the flammable frustrations of the immigrant farmers who now outnumbered the old planters but saw none of the advantage of the old rules. In sporadic battles that saw whole counties shift allegiances back and forth, the Bacon forces did succeed in capturing and then burning Jamestown. But Bacon himself met an inglorious, albeit fitting, end. He died from a septic bite of a louse, and while his rebellion sputtered along for a while longer, it ultimately was snuffed out.

The only lasting impact of Bacon's Rebellion was that it expanded the demand by the planters for more docile and cheaper slaves from Africa. That is another story for another time.

James Srodes is author most recently of "On Dupont Circle" (Counterpoint, 2012).